A festivalgoer could attend the biannual LEAF simply to take in an array of musical acts, drink a few beers and check out the art and craft on display around the grounds, but there’s plenty of opportunity to delve deeper. Aside from rich offerings of healing arts, spoken word, dance and community-building, each festival is produced around a thought-provoking theme. For the spring 2019 iteration — held Thursday-Sunday, May 9-12, at Camp Rockmont in Black Mountain — it’s Breaking Ground.
Although she wasn’t previously aware of the theme, upon hearing the phrase, headliner India.Arie immediately resonated with it. “Anytime I make an album, I’ve lived a lot of life up to that point, and then I’m breaking ground, I’m … building this thing,” she says. “I’ve lived through a lot of transformations — I look different to people at different times. My skin color looks different to people, I lose and gain weight. I feel like I’m always shape-shifting because my internal life is transforming all the time. I feel like I’m always breaking ground on something new.”
But, India.Arie adds, “Asheville is one of my favorite cities, so I can see why [LEAF] would speak to me that way.”
She relates to this locale because of its natural beauty “and the type of people it attracts,” she says. “The way that the shows always feel … wanting to connect with each other and art. All that stuff is what I love, but it’s not what I always get to be around. So when I go to Asheville I feel like, ‘These are my people.’”
India.Arie is currently based in Nashville, which seems a world apart from her previous home bases in New York and Atlanta. Those two cities are both aligned, for different reasons, with the musician’s soulful sound. But, perhaps surprisingly, it’s Nashville where she has recorded most of her records, including Worthy, released last year.
Afropunk called the raw, emotive and ultimately hopeful collection “a culmination of more than two decades in the music industry and a self-emancipation from denying her truth a voice,” and India.Arie says the description is accurate. “It’s one of the themes of my life,” she says. “My life is a journey where I’ve internally done the work to increasingly become more self-expressed.”
As a teenager, she says, she was always the one doing her own thing. But when she entered the music industry, forces of marketing, branding and media caused her to second-guess herself. Worthy speaks to the process of gaining herself back and “the emancipation from letting anyone else put their truth on you.”
At LEAF, India.Arie hopes to perform a traditional set, including those new songs, as well as what she calls a “Songversation.” The title is both the name of her sixth album and a “guided meditation, sound-bath type thing … so it’s less of a performance and more of a being together, with music.”
Other sonic offerings at spring LEAF include soul, jazz and R&B alchemizers the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio; singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist sisters Larkin Poe; husband-and-wife soul-folk duo The War and Treaty; swamptronica project Dirtwire; and classical-meets-hip-hop outfit Black Violin, among many more.
Beyond bands, look for Unifire Theatre to spin, dance with and eat flames; Imagine Circus to showcase acrobatics, flow arts and aerial dance; and Ka Amorastreya to bring healing and performance art to the Lake Eden grounds.
Dancers can find their groove at a number of contra, technocontra, salsa, zydeco and ecstatic dance sets. And the annual spring LEAF events Southern Fried Poetry Slam and NewSong presents: LEAF Singer-Songwriter Competition return to Eden Hall and The Barn, respectively.
It’s likely India.Arie — who says she looks forward to spending time at the festival — takes inspiration from such a wide array of creative influences. “Songs come out of everyday life,” she says. “I let the songs take me where they want to go. Different producers, different cities I want to record in, different instruments I want to try. … Songversations was recorded in Istanbul. … I don’t ever know where they’re going to take me.”
The musician got her start in Atlanta, where she cut her teeth in the 1990s as artists such as Usher, TLC and Babyface were coming up. Before she signed with a major label, “There were about 20 of us who created our own alternative scene to that scene,” India.Arie says. That group played their own club and produced their own albums. Her mother made her stage outfits then — and does to this day. Those formative years “helped me to polish myself and know what I wanted,” she says.
These days, one place where India.Arie is happiest is in her home studio, where she learned to engineer her own vocals. “Being in the studio alone while singing helps me to try different things [and] it helps with the writing,” she says. “I’m naturally an introvert — I especially love to be alone when I’m creating. … The songs get more refined in that process.”
WHAT: LEAF Festival, theleaf.org
WHERE: Camp Rockmont, 375 Lake Eden Road, Black Mountain
WHEN: Thursday-Sunday, May 9-12. Tickets are available online through Thursday, May 8, or until they sell out. Weekend-plus tickets (includes Thursday) for LEAF members only are $227 adults/$201 youths ages 10-17; weekend tickets (Friday-Sunday with camping) $190/$159; community tickets (Friday-Sunday, no overnight stays) $127/$111; Friday or Sunday day tickets $58/$47; Saturday day tickets $69/$63; parking is $10 per vehicle